This is part two of Earhart’s story. To read part one, click here.
In April 1940, the local, British magistrate, Gerald B. Gallagher, was exploring the southeastern shore of the island with a team of men, when they discovered a “Camp Site” (geographic coordinates 044108.12 South by 1742942.42 West) just 95 feet inland from the ocean, beneath a tropical ren tree, which still exists today. What they found at the site were 13 bones of human, skeletal remains, a Benedictine cognac bottle, a 1918 European sextant box, a sextant eyepiece, a man’s shoe, a woman’s size 10 shoe and sole, campfire remains, dead frigate birds, and a sea turtle shell. Gallagher telegraphed his superiors and reported the “skull, which is just possibly that of Amelia Earhart…Skeleton is possibly that of a woman…this may be remains of Amelia Earhart…presumably died of thirst.”
Officially, according to all international records, no aircraft had ever crashed on or near Gardner Island, and the island was supposed to have been totally uninhabited before October 1937, yet the only missing aircraft, and missing persons in all of history, within a 1,000-mile radius, were the Lockheed Electra 10ESpecial, Amelia Earhart, and Fred Noonan, so here we have a perfect, clear-cut case of the simplest-possible explanation that accounts for all of the known facts.
However, in 1940, Great Britain was at war against Nazi Germany, and was heavily supported by U.S. weapons, supplies, and military equipment. Gardner Island was British soil, and finding a skeleton there was highly controversial, even more so if it turned out to be Amelia Earhart, since the British had done nothing to search their own island for any signs of her after the disappearance. Accordingly, Gallagher was ordered by High Commissioner for the Western Pacific Sir Harry Charles Luke, on October 15, 1940, to “Keep matter strictly secret” to avoid “unfounded rumours,” because, “Thinnest rumours which may in the end prove unfounded are liable to be spread.”
The skull (retaining only five teeth) and bones were sent to Suva, Fiji, where Doctor David W. Hoodless took detailed measurements on April 4, 1941, and decided, somewhat confusingly, that they were the bones of a 5’ 5 ½” male, aged 45 to 55, probably not Polynesian, but of European or “mixed-European descent,” while ignoring all other evidence found on-scene, including the sextant box, which was mentioned.
British officials immediately dropped the matter, and did not notify the United States, “for fear of embarrassment.” It now seems likely that there was British pressure to avoid any controversy regarding the possible discovery of Earhart’s body on British soil at a critical time, effectively a subtle cover-up. Hoodless was probably ordered to misidentify the skeleton using vague or incorrect wording, to avoid any Earhart controversy.
The bones were unfortunately lost (perhaps intentionally) over time, but exacting measurements still exist. Modern, forensic analysis by Doctor Karen R. Burns (University of North Carolina), who traveled to the island in 2007, and Doctor Richard L. Jantz (University of Tennessee), clearly states that the bones were actually from a 5’ 7” person (Earhart’s exact height), and were “Definitely a female European.” The only “female European” (meaning Caucasian) missing in the entire region was Amelia Earhart, so it’s difficult to reach any other conclusion.
From July 1944 to December 1945, and possibly beyond, the U.S. Coast Guard had a Loran (Long-range navigation) station at the southern tip of Gardner Island, with 25 men assigned at any given time. But Dick Evans, one of them, later reported that, “We didn’t look (for anything unusual on the island)…We did nothing.” They were under strict order not to fraternize with the native islanders.
A small, wooden box, beautifully inlaid with diamond-shaped patterns of shiny, aircraft-grade aluminum, was among a number of such handcrafted items given to a Coast Guard PBY-5ACatalina seaplane copilot by Gardner Island villagers in late 1944. They told him that the metal had come from a crashed plane that was already on the island when they arrived in 1940.
On July 21, 1960, the San Diego Tribune published the following, astounding story: “Gardner Island is…where Amelia Earhart crashed and died…At low tide, the smoothest coral in the world is exposed…you could…land your plane…Floyd Kilts (of San Diego) says, Amelia Earhart’s airplane…lies in a crust of shells. Kilts…was a chief carpenter in the Coast Guard for four years…stationed on 15 islands in the Pacific…One of the 15 was Gardner…That was March 1946…Gardner is on roughly the same longitude as Howland and only 380 miles south…Miss Earhart was running north and south…on the line between Howland and Gardner.
“Kilts knows…‘A native tried to tell me about it…in the latter part of 1938, there were 23 island people, all men…and the native was walking along one end of the island. There in the brush, about five feet from the shoreline, he saw a skeleton…What attracted him to it was the shoes. Women’s shoes, American kind. No native wears shoes…The shoes were size nine narrow. Beside the body was a cognac bottle with fresh water in it for drinking…The island doctor said the skeleton was that of a woman. And there were no native women on the island then. Farther down the beach, he found a man’s skull, but nothing else.’
“‘The magistrate (Gerald Gallagher)…thought of Amelia Earhart right away…was anxious to get the news to the world…The natives are superstitious as the devil…scared of the spirits…’ Kilts…is sure that Miss Earhart crashed on the coral trap of the Gardner beach and crawled into the brush and died.”
The part about native superstitions was certainly true. Tapania Taiki, who lived on the island in the 1950s as a little girl, says she remembers an airplane wing on the reef near the village. “The older people said they saw the skeletons of a man and woman, one each, the elders said, ‘Do not go to where the plane is, there are ghosts there.” Emily Sikuli, who lives in Fiji, left Nikumaroro in 1941, but says that her father showed her airplane wreckage on the same part of the reef. In 1997, she marked exact location on a map of the island. Currently, no one is allowed on the island at night, because of a deep belief in spirits. In fact, people from later expeditions who were stranded on the island at night due to bad weather reported very strange experiences that they declined to discuss in detail.
The Floyd Kilts story came out at a time in the nation’s history (pre-Watergate) when most of us still naïvely believed everything that our government told us, so the Kilts article received very little attention or public notice, and the Navy’s flawed version was the one told in most of the newspapers, magazines, and history books. As we will soon discover, however, this particular scenario was almost exactly the same hypothesis later advanced by TIGHAR beginning in 1989, and it turns out to be virtually the only theory supported by actual, physical evidence.
By the 1950s, Gilbertese settlers on Gardner Island numbered 100 men, women, and children, but there was a severe drought in 1963, and the island was evacuated, becoming once again officially uninhabited by 1965, and still deserted today.
In early 1971, civilian aircraft maintenance contractor Bruce Yoho was working at a U.S. Air Force missile test site on Kanton Island, 200 miles northeast of Gardner Island. Many years later, he emailed TIGHAR, stating that, “I have taken some pictures and airlifted an engine that appeared to be a 1340 from the coral beach of Gardner Island.” He had helped to recover an 865-pound, Pratt and Whitney R1340 single-row, nine-cylinder, radial engine from the western coral reef of Gardner Island. It was flown by Sikorsky HH-3 Jolly Green Giant helicopter to Kanton Island, and later bulldozed into a garbage dump at the end of the 6,000-foot runway.
The only aircraft ever lost near Gardner Island was Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra 10ESpecial, with two P&W R1340-S3H1 radial engines, serial numbers 6149 and 6150. The Kanton engine is still there, but cannot be excavated because no bulldozers or construction equipment exist on the island anymore. Would the serial numbers match?
On July 12, 1979, Gardner Island was renamed Nikumaroro after independence from the United Kingdom, and being incorporated into the new Republic of Kiribati (pronounced “Keer-uh-bahss,” it’s the Gilbertese spelling of “Gilberts.”) In 1989, Ric Gillespie and his TIGHAR organization began sending 12 major expeditions there, most recently in 2017, jointly with National Geographic. Some of their scientific discoveries have been absolutely astounding! I began researching Amelia Earhart’s last flight in 1989, as a direct result of some of TIGHAR’s great discoveries.
Let’s first address the wooden, 1918 sextant box found by Gerald Gallagher at the “Camp Site/Seven Site” in 1940. First of all, the only missing person for thousands of miles in any direction who was known (or even remotely qualified) to use a top-quality, 1918-1919, German sextant was Fred Noonan, so statistically, the most-likely owner can easily be narrowed down by process of elimination. The Gardner Island box had dovetailed corners, bore the handwritten number “3500” on the bottom of the box itself, was believed to have been European (English or French) in design, and a black-painted, sextant eyepiece was found nearby. The number corresponds to known, U.S.-made, Naval-surplus, F.E. Brandis (German) sextants.
TIGHAR later discovered and photographed a mahogany sextant box with dovetailed corners that definitely belonged to Fred Noonan, and was loaned to a Pan Am pilot. It contained an intact, 1919 German nautical sextant, painted black, made by W. Ludolph of Bremerhaven. Of approximately 500 sextant boxes examined by TIGHAR staff in the United States and United Kingdom, this particular, Noonan box was the only one that bore any kind of writing on the exterior, which was the number “3547” handwritten on the bottom.
What’s the statistical likelihood of a known, Fred Noonan box (#3547) and the Gardner Island box (#3500) sharing very similar serial numbers, certainly in the same batch, especially when all of the other boxes were unmarked? Astronomical, to be sure! This startling evidence, practically a “smoking gun” in itself, tremendously increases the probability that the Gardner Island box likely belonged to Fred Noonan.
TIGHAR also found an irregular piece of curved, clear Plexiglas on Nikumaroro, exactly 1/8th of an inch thick. Interestingly, the 1936 Lockheed Electra 10E series had a Plexiglas windscreen 5/32nd of an inch thick, but on the 1937 models, including Earhart’s, the thickness was reduced to exactly 1/8th-inch to save weight! Now, where, exactly, did this aircraft-quality Plexiglas come from, on an island with no recorded, aircraft crashes?
Among other evidence recovered on Nikumaroro, there was an aluminum plate, an aluminum channel section, an aluminum heat shield, an aluminum map case, a homemade, aluminum comb (in 2015), and an aluminum sheet bearing weathered, fire-engine red paint. Earhart’s Electra 10E Special was mostly unpainted, bare aluminum, but the registration number was painted in black lettering, and the leading edges of the wings and tail section were painted bright, fire-engine red!
Furthermore, a riveted, aluminum panel (TIGHAR Artifact 2-2-V-1) discovered on the island in 1991, and made from Alcoa Aluminum 24ST Alclad, measures 19 by 23 inches, with four rows of rivet holes. The rivet pattern on the panel is the exact size and shape to match the aluminum, repair patch installed on Earhart’s Electra in Miami on May 30, 1937.
On October 7, 2014, TIGHAR researchers took the aluminum artifact to Wichita Air Services of Newton, Kansas, where a 1937 Electra 10A was being restored. The rivet pattern and other features of the recovered panel matched the patch and lined up perfectly with the structural components of the Electra! “This is the first time an artifact found on Nikumaroro has been shown to have a direct link to Amelia Earhart,” Ric Gillespie said. “These things don’t just line up by coincidence.”
The Alcoa Corporation, of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, has said that most of this recovered, aircraft-grade aluminum, found on the western parts of the island in 1991, is entirely consistent with a 1930s-vintage (definitely pre-1939), civilian aircraft, because there is no zinc chromate primer, as the U.S. Armed Forces used on most of their aircraft for corrosion resistance.
However, researcher Tom Palshaw, who restores aircraft at the New England Air Museum in Windsor Locks, Connecticut, and who supports TIGHAR’s Nikumaroro theory, has performed extensive analysis of the Artifact 2-2-V-1 panel rivet pattern, and he makes a very compelling case that the artifact may possibly have come from a C-47A-DL Skytrain transport aircraft that crashed on Sydney Island, 200 miles east of Gardner Island, on December 17, 1943.
TIGHAR visited the museum on July 16, 2017, with their artifact, made of 032 Alclad, and it was found that the skin thickness (.032”), rivet types (-3, -5, and -6), line spacings, and rivet pattern were entirely consistent with the upper wing section of a C-47 aircraft. Chemical analysis at Lehigh Testing Laboratories in New Castle, Delaware, showed that the artifact panel’s composition was closer to World War Two aluminum than to 1930s aluminum.
Also, the known, rivet pattern of Lockheed Electras shows smaller rivets that are more closely spaced than those of the artifact. The Gilbertese settlers on Gardner Island were known to travel to Sydney Island, and salvage material from crashed aircraft, so it’s reasonable and quite possible that the artifact is from a C-47A. Palshaw concluded that, “While this analysis does not prove that 2-2-V-1 came from the Sidney Island crash, it does show that it is possible. The Sidney Island crash cannot be ruled out.” This artifact analysis certainly does not disprove TIGHAR’s theory in any way. It only shows that this one particular piece of evidence may have come from another source.
On June 10, 2002, Doctor Gregory Stone, the leader of a TIGHAR expedition, discovered a metal wheel stuck under about four feet of water on the western coral reef, 15 to 20 feet from shore, and assessed to be about 15 inches wide by about 12 inches in diameter at the rim. No photograph was possible at the time. It was old metal, not rusty, indicative of probable aluminum. The Lockheed Electra 10E used aluminum-alloy, Goodyear Airwheels (Assembly Code #395-612), size 35×15-6, with a 35-inch-tall tire, and wheels 15 inches wide, with an inboard rim 12 inches wide, perfectly matching the dimensions of Doctor Stone’s wheel. Unfortunately, the mystery wheel disappeared during a tropical cyclone in 2003, and could not be retrieved.
TIGHAR also recovered fragments of confirmed, red-wafer, cosmetic rouge from the Seven Site in May to June 2010, consisting of elements almost identical to the compounds used in Earhart’s Mondaine cosmetic compact. Gilbertese islander women did not use cosmetics in the 1930s, certainly not in European skin-tone colors. Very few Caucasian women ever visited Nikumaroro in the past, and none is known to have visited the Seven Site. The Coast Guard men visited the site, but none used makeup or any other material similar to makeup. This leaves the female castaway as the only possible owner.
Also recovered at the Seven Site were hinge-chipped, giant, Tridacna clam shells with a possible pry tool. Gilbertese islanders don’t pry clams open; they cut the muscle, take only the meat, and leave the heavy shells in the ocean. Prying is an Eastern-U.S. oyster technique. Amelia lived for a time in Massachusetts and New York. In addition, there were a total of 1,401 animal bones recovered there, including 1,168 fish bones and heads, 78 fragments of sea turtle bone, 155 bird bones, and one highly-fragmentary bone of a medium-sized mammal (likely a dog or small pig). Pacific Islanders normally eat the whole fish, including the head, which is a local delicacy. This is further evidence that the Seven Site castaway was not a Pacific Islander.
Other amazing evidence recovered at the Seven Site includes an empty, 1934-marked bottle of Campana Balm, the top-selling, American hand lotion of the 1930s, marketed exclusively for women, and found on the island in 2007. Spectroscopy lab-test results from Winterthur Labs of Delaware showed a very good match for 1934 Campana Balm, even after 70 years of contamination on Nikumaroro.
Then, there was a broken, empty jar of Doctor Berry’s Freckle Ointment recovered in 2010, manufactured from 1892 to 1961, and sold by Sears from 1908 until at least 1936. At a 1928 ticker-tape parade in New York City, Amelia Earhart had removed her hat and said, “Here’s where I get 60 more freckles on my poor nose, I guess!” So, whoever died at the Seven Site was clearly concerned about freckles, and was therefore probably a woman. As Ric Gillespie of TIGHAR dryly noted concerning this discovery, “We cannot exclude the possibility that someone brought a jar of American women’s freckle cream to a British-administered island where nobody had freckles, but it doesn’t seem very likely.”
After TIGHAR’s 2010 journey was concluded, Gillespie commented in various interviews that, “On this expedition, we have recovered nearly 100 objects. Among the items were two buttons, parts of a pocket knife that was beaten apart to detach the blades, a cloth shaped like a bowl, a broken, cosmetic jar, and cosmetic rouge fragments from a woman’s compact…Only someone who really knew the island could choose this place (the Seven Site.) This is Nikumaroro’s best place. It has shade and breeze, and it is close to the lagoon and the ocean…There is evidence on the island suggesting that a castaway was there for weeks and possibly months…After 22 years of rigorous research and 10 grueling expeditions, we can say that all of the evidence we have found on Nikumaroro is consistent with the hypothesis that Earhart and her navigator, Fred Noonan, landed and eventually died there as castaways.”
There were subsequent expeditions in 2012, together with the Discovery Channel, and in 2015. On October 22, 2016, anthropologist Doctor Richard Jantz noticed that the 1940 skeleton’s forearm measurements were longer than average, with a radius-to-humerus ratio of .756 (the average is .73.) So, the dead castaway had longer-than-average arms. But Amelia Earhart was 5’ 7” tall, at least two inches taller than the average woman, even today, so this should not be too surprising. Forensic imaging expert Jeff Glickman closely examined historical photos of Amelia Earhart, and scientifically calculated that “the radius-to-humerus ratio of Amelia Earhart is 0.76,” virtually identical to the Nikumaroro castaway’s! “It’s more likely than not that the bones are hers,” Jantz said.
In 2017, TIGHAR made additional measurements based upon the known size of an oil can in Amelia’s hand in a historical photo. The can measured 6.8 inches wide. Amelia’s elbow-to-wrist measurement was 9.59 inches. The average, female radius bone is 8.66 inches long, but the radius found on Niku was 9.65 inches, so the skeleton was clearly that of a taller-than-average woman, like Earhart.
Then, in July 2017, National Geographic magazine sent four border-collie, sniffer dogs on an expedition to Nikumaroro, together with TIGHAR members, checking the area where 12 human bones and a skull, believed to possibly be those of Amelia Earhart, were recovered beneath a tropical ren tree in 1940. These dogs can smell human bones as deeply as nine feet below the ground, and up to 1,500 years old.
National Geographic later wrote that, “Within moments of beginning to work the site, Berkeley, a curly, red male, lay down at the base of a ren tree, eyes locked on his handler…The dog was ‘alerting,’ indicating…that he had detected the scent of human remains. Next up was Kayle, a fluffy, eager-to-please female. She also alerted on the same spot. The next day, Marcy and Piper, two black-and-white collies, were brought to the site. Both dogs alerted. The signals were clear: Someone, perhaps Earhart or her navigator, Fred Noonan, had died beneath the ren tree.” But TIGHAR researchers discovered no bones there. They sent soil samples to a lab for DNA extraction, but the samples were contaminated.
On March 7, 2018, Doctor Richard L. Jantz published new evidence in Forensic Anthropology, stating that, “When (Doctor David) Hoodless conducted his analysis (in 1941), forensic osteology was not yet a well-developed discipline…his methods…were inadequate to his task. This is particularly the case with his sexing method. Therefore, his sex assessment of the Nikumaroro bones cannot be assumed to be correct.” He says that Hoodless underestimated the height of the skeleton compared to modern techniques.
Jantz also compared the Nikumaroro bone measurements with data from 2,776 other Caucasian people who died in the mid-20th century, adding that, “This analysis reveals that Earhart is more similar to the Nikumaroro bones than 99 percent of individuals in a large, reference sample. This strongly supports the conclusion that the Nikumaroro bones belonged to Amelia Earhart…What I can say scientifically is that they are 99-percent likely to be her.”
The latest development in the Amelia Earhart saga is the mysterious, “Taraia Object,” an anomaly discovered on Apple Maps in May 2020 by California resident Mike Ashmore, at geographic coordinates 044006 South by 1743142 West, in the Nikumaroro Lagoon, just beside the Taraia Spit area. Satellite imagery shows a long object underwater, just offshore, which vaguely resembles an aircraft wing. Also, not too far away, at coordinates 044101 South by 1742951 West, along the lagoon beach west of the Seven Site, is what appears to be a manmade symbol dug into the sand. Ashmore believes that it may be portions of the letters “KHAQQ,” which was Amelia Earhart’s radio callsign, marked on the beach as a possible, SOS identification signal. These discoveries are detailed on “The Road to Amelia Earhart” web site at roadtoamelia.org.
This is certainly an intriguing story, but is probably more wishful thinking than anything else. As TIGHAR has already pointed out, after 12 expeditions to the island, there is no physical evidence whatsoever to substantiate these new claims, and attempting to validate them would require yet another very expensive and likely fruitless expedition to Nikumaroro. Ric Gillespie aptly pointed out in a recent email to me that, “We’ve been to that spot. There’s nothing there.”
During the course of TIGHAR’s many expeditions, Gillespie observed that, “In our experience, the crabs can be a serious problem. When we sat down to eat lunch, there were hundreds of these crabs climbing on our shoes. If you lay down, they think you are dead and they pinch pieces out of you.” John Clauss, a veteran of 10 TIGHAR expeditions to the island, added that, at night, “The crabs close in on you. If you shine a flashlight, outside the shadow ring there are a thousand crabs.” Or so it can seem. Clauss quickly learned not to sleep on the ground.
These crabs have six tons of crushing pressure in their large pincers for cracking coconuts open, and can live for up to 40 years! Considering the grim fact that only 13 human bones were recovered at the Camp Site/Seven Site in 1940, while the human body contains a total of 206 bones, it’s readily apparent that the remainder of the bones were dispersed by some force of nature between 1937 and 1940, with the most-likely explanation being the giant, coconut crabs.
All of this highly-detailed, scientific and forensic evidence certainly points to the logical conclusion that Amelia Earhart and Fred Noonan probably crash-landed on Gardner Island at approximately noon on Friday, July 2, 1937, and likely survived for days, weeks, or even months afterward. Noonan apparently sustained a head injury upon landing, and may have died first, according to other evidence, leaving Earhart to survive alone near the Seven Site camping area. But, with no regular supply of fresh, drinking water, she eventually succumbed to thirst and dehydration beneath the ren tree, with the huge crabs closing in as she slowly weakened and was unable to move.
Perhaps we’d all like to believe the Navy’s improbable version of the story after all, because, as Ric Gillespie coldly summarized, “A nice, clean death at sea is preferable to being eaten alive by crabs.”
We may never know with absolute certainty what happened on Amelia Earhart’s last flight after she departed from the Howland Island vicinity, but there is abundant, credible evidence that the Gardner Island/Nikumaroro scenario is truly the simplest-possible explanation that accounts for virtually all of the known facts, and is therefore most likely to be correct. It may not be the answer that we particularly want to hear, but the mountain of physical evidence is clearly substantial and compelling.
Warren Gray is a retired, U.S. Air Force intelligence officer with experience in joint special operations and counterterrorism. He served in Europe and the Middle East, earned Air Force and Navy parachutist wings, four college degrees, including a Master of Aeronautical Science degree, and was a distinguished graduate of the Air Force Intelligence Operations Specialist Course, and the USAF Combat Targeting School. He is currently a published author and historian (also investigating historical mysteries.) You may visit his web site at: warrengray54.vistaprintdigital.com.